As states revamp their early childhood education to grab a slice of federal education dollars, some education experts are urging policymakers to look outside the classroom to improve educational opportunites for the country's youngsters.
Just as Obama awarded over $500 million in state grants to improve pre-K, the Brookings Institution released a report arguing more attention paid to family background factors such as poverty and maternal education would help improve educational outcomes for our littlest learners.
The report argued that gaps in children's ability to learn begin long before they enter the classroom -- and that those gaps can have lasting effects on class mobility.
"If you look at kids with parents in the bottom 20 percent, their chances of remaining in the bottom 20 percent are very high," said Julia Isaacs, a Brookings fellow and one of the paper's authors. "How is it that children of low-income parents don’t succeed as well as other children?"
The paper found that parental income is strongly linked to academic performance, even when accounting for other background factors, such as gender and race. The paper found each additional $10,000 in annual parental income throughout early childhood gave kids the equivalent of slightly over one more month of learning.
The paper also found ties between maternal learning and student achievement: An additional year of a mother's schooling was equivalent to about half month of additional learning, as gauged by test scores. The report is the first to have linked maternal learning and income to school readiness on a national scale while controlling for other factors.
"Disparities in academic skills and other areas of development are apparent well before children enter school, suggesting that efforts targeted early in the life course may be effective in preventing the disparities that schools seek to remediate," the authors wrote.
"If we could identify strategies for improving the school readiness of disadvantaged children before they enter kindergarten, we might be able to improve their opportunities for achieving the American Dream."
But not all academics have heralded the new research. Jens Ludwig, a University of Chicago professor who has published on pre-kindergarten programs, said he is skeptical of reports that focus on income.
"What really matters are the parent characteristics that are correlated with family income," he said, mentioning factors such as mental health and verbal ability.
Katherine Magnuson, an author of the paper and University of Wisconsin, Madison professor who focuses on early childhood development, made the case for early childhood interventions that focus on parental support.
"Academics have known this for a very long time," she said. But "there's been this persistent inability to really strongly take up its implications on the policy side." The report suggests giving conditional cash supplements to families in need and enhanced tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit as ways to help parents prepare their kids for learning.
So far the Obama administration hasn't pushed those comprehensive ideas, instead targeting pre-K learning gaps primarily through in-classroom programs.
Last week the Obama administration announced the first nine winners of the Race to the Top -- Early Learning Challenge contest, a competition that awards states that overhaul their pre-K programs, and on Monday the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the public pre-K initiative known as Head Start, announced its first tangible step toward improving public pre-school Head Start centers.
While most of Obama's programs focus on the classroom, a smaller initiative, known as Promise Neighborhoods, takes a more comprehensive approach.
"There's reason to believe that if you affect a whole community, kids should be better," Magnuson said.
"The differences we observe are not a necessary condition of the world that we live in," Magnuson sad. "They're constructed by a whole series of decisions that policymakers in conjunction with the public make."
William Gormley, a Georgetown University public policy professor, agreed. He said, "We need a viable plan to turn their lives around. Higher taxes and entitlement reform have to be part of that plan."
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